It’s Christmas time, once again. For me, it’s the first one without my dear father — also the reason for this nostalgic trip to the 70s and 80s, to the city I grew up in and explored hand-in-hand with him. Today, Chennai is no longer Madras and so much has changed.
But if you think Christmas in Chennai is sheer commercial humbug, you are wrong. Long before the malls burst on the scene, we had our own Moore Market where you could get almost anything under the sun — from pins to partridges — and bargain for it, too. Bright glittery tinsel, glass baubles and decorations, beautifully-crafted clay cribs and rare, imported LP records like the Gunter Kallmann Choir and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas — Moore Market was a veritable treasure trove with exciting goodies like these.
Plastic was virtually non-existent those days. Every decoration was either in paper, metal or the more expensive glass. Christmas trees were the humble casuarina branches, elevated from their mere firewood status to decked-up centrepieces for a whole month. But getting the right shape was purely one’s luck, as neither the woodcutter nor the vendor knew what an actual Christmas tree looked like. Decorating the Christmas tree was a community affair with friends and family chipping in and squabbling over what should go where.
So the bells, baubles and glittering angels all found a place with the not-so-Christmassy balloons and greeting cards. With the decorations done, keeping the tree green until New Year by watering and tending it was a challenge.
Another Christmas hotspot — Spencer’s on Mount Road — was a different kind of experience, as people used to flock there just to look at the Christmas decorations. At the entrance was Chennai’s one and only Santa Claus, regularly reducing every little boy and girl to tears. But for the brave, the goodies inside were a feast to the eyes. Reams of pretty electric bulbs in exciting colours, vintage greeting cards with glitter, balloons, paper decorations and delicious cakes — Spencer’s made it complete.
Christmas season was looked forward to as much as Christmas Day itself. The calendar was packed with music concerts and performances, and there was Carols by Candlelight — the longest running Christmas event in the history of Chennai. Ringing in the season was complete when we sang Silent Night, Holy Night in the warm glow of our candles on a dewy December night at the St. Christopher’s Training College campus.
As Christmas also means giving to the less fortunate and needy, ‘Gift Sunday’ at St. Thomas English Church meant bringing Christmas gifts that we’d personally distribute later during the day at the CSI School for the Deaf Hostel and at the general wards of CSI Kalyani Hospital in Mylapore. And through the joy in the eyes of the children who received these gifts, we learnt it was more blessed to give than to receive.
Christmas eve out on the streets in areas like Perambur, Vepery and Santhome, was electrifying. Bakeries were open 24 hours, perhaps as a saving grace for that cake which didn’t turn out quite right; and tailors put finishing touches to long-awaited dresses. Looking back, most of these have been taken over by today’s gourmet bakers, event planners and online shopping.
But, for a city that has grown up so much, good old Chennai has not lost its Christmas spirit. We still have the carol concerts, Christmas plays and Santa Claus who thankfully looks more real. And now, it’s up to you and me to put back that old Madras spirit into Christmas.